Few of our sacred stories are as famous—or as provocative—as the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22). Each year when we read it publicly at the High Holidays, I try to imagine how it comes across to those Jews who come to services only at that season. If your only Jewish religious experience consisted of hearing the story of a fanatical father who took his son up a mountain to slaughter him, would you come back for more?
But taking Torah at face value is not the Jewish way. We are Yisrael, the people who wrestle with God and with our sacred text. The Bible's redactors could have excised this problematic story of the near sacrifice of a beloved son, but they left it in. The question for us as readers is, why? What can we learn from it?
The Rabbis of our tradition teach us that a close reading of text can reveal meanings hidden beneath the surface. When they read the Akeidah, they identify an apparent theological issue. At the climax of the tale, the angel commands Abraham, "Do not lay your hand on the lad" (Genesis 22:12). Rashi brings a midrash to highlight the problem:
Abraham said to God, "I shall lay my complaint before you. Yesterday, you said to me, 'In Isaac shall your seed be called to you' (Genesis 21:12). And then you came back and said, 'Take your son' (Genesis 22:2). Now you are telling me, 'Do not lay your hand upon the lad' (Genesis 22:12)." (B'reishit Rabbah, 56:8)
Abraham's complaint amounts to accusing the Eternal God of changing His mind or even going back on His word. First, God promised to make Abraham into a great nation through Isaac. Then, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice him. Now, the angel tells Abraham to stay his hand. How can it be, the Rabbis have Abraham ask, that the perfect, immutable King of the Universe could flip-flop like this? The midrash continues with God's explanation:
The Holy One, Blessed be God, said to [Abraham], "'I will not violate My covenant, or change what has gone out from my lips' (Psalm 89:35) . . . When I said to you, 'Take [your son],' I was not altering what came forth from My lips. I did not say to you, 'Slay him,' but rather, 'Take him up.' You have taken him up; now take him down!" (B'reishit Rabbah, 56:8)
The authors of this midrash are clever readers of the Torah. The crux of the matter is the exact meaning of the word used when God commands Abraham concerning Isaac. According to the NJPS translation,1 God said, "Offer him there as a burnt-offering" (Genesis 22:2). But the Hebrew v'ha-a-lei-hu could be rendered "take him up" instead of "offer him up"—as it is in our midrash.
We often understand Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his own son as a sign of his blind faith in God. In contrast, the midrash presents a God who wants Abraham not to follow him blindly, but instead to be a sophisticated, critical reader.
Of course, there is a tradition that Abraham knew all along that he wouldn't go through with the killing of Isaac. When he and Isaac and the two servants arrive at the site, Abraham tells the lads to stay with the donkeys while he and Isaac ascend the mountain. He assures them, "We will worship and return to you" (Genesis 22:5). Rashi, based on B'reishit Rabbah, explains, "[Abraham] prophesied that they would both return." Rashi, following the midrash, assumes that Abraham is telling the truth and hinting at his foreknowledge of events on the mountaintop. Perhaps, then, Abraham is not an unsophisticated literalist acting on blind faith, but a thoughtful and humane interpreter of God's word.
All of these interpretive gymnastics raise a question: if Abraham knew he wouldn't go through with the sacrifice, and God never really wanted him to do it anyway, then why bother with the whole charade in the first place? Rashi suggests that this is the divine answer: "For now I know that you are one who fears God . . ." (Rashi on Genesis 22:12). It can't be that God didn't "know" Abraham's faithfulness, but now God has proof. As Rashi explains, "From now I have a reply to give to Satan and to the nations who wonder at the love I bear you. I have a reason, now that they see that you are a God-fearer." In other words, Abraham's ostensible act of faith shows the world's doubters that he is worthy of God's special election and covenant—and, by extension, so are his descendants.
This interpretation resonates more deeply when one imagines the Rabbis, whether in Rashi's time or during Talmudic times, living in exile among Christians who claimed the mantle of Abraham for themselves.2 To the Christians who said that the Jews' dispersion and degradation was evidence of God's forsaking them, Abraham's worthy deed affirmed the ongoing Jewish covenant. And to the Christians who claimed that faith in Jesus had replaced the Jewish embrace of Torah, Rashi and B'reishit Rabbah show that careful reading of Scripture is a genuine expression of Jewish commitment, as well as an antidote to blind faith.
As Jews in twenty-first-century America, we find ourselves living among fundamentalists, who force their faith on others, and atheists, who shun religion altogether. The way our tradition reclaimed the Akeidah might be instructive for us today, for we are called to be countercultural in the face of both trends. We affirm our faith, but not blindly; we revere the Torah, which demands reading between the lines. We call ourselves the Children of Abraham, heirs to a complicated character whose ambiguities invite us to examine and improve ourselves.
1. New JPS translation
2. See "Severance from Judaism," Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 5 (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1996), pp.507-508
Rabbi David Segal is the spiritual leader of the Aspen Jewish Congregation in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship.